Saturday, January 08, 2005

The Big Picture

World population %, 1800-2050 - link

Sometimes it’s instructive to look at the big picture. With the tsunami and its devastation still in the news, many Americans are getting a first hand picture of an area of the world in which they are not familiar. Comparisons of the developing vs the developed world are being made, and there is talk of linkage between man’s unchecked activities, tsunamis, and future environmental catastrophes.

We’re all familiar with Malthus and his theories that populations always, over time, exceed the growth of their food supply, leading to the politics of scarcity. This hypothesis is at the root of much environmental thinking today – as populations increase, environmental degradation and scarcity increase proportionally (or exponentially).

But we know that the developed and developing world have radically different growth rates as wealth, education, and choices limit the desireability of large families:

Women in developed countries average only 1.6 children, compared to 3.6 children per women in less developed countries (excluding China).

Current thinking suggests that the next 50-75 years will see a world population increase from its current 6 billion to 9-10 billion, and then, just as developed nations have stabilized, global population will stabilize and even potentially decline. Our friend Mr. Crichton even hazards a guess that global population will be less in 100 years than it is today (pg 570, State of Fear). Doomesday scenarios of unfettered population growth and rampant scarcity seem farfetched. A better concern should be how we accelerate these countries’ status from developing to developed.

The “Anglosphere,” that grouping of countries that share a Western heritage and values such as the rule of law, private property, representative democracy, market-based economies, and the English language as its first language, is currently and will remain a very small percentage of total global population, being dwarfed by Asia and Africa. The demographic decline of Europe, and Russia in particular, and the growth of China and India, will be large factors in this gap. China is even relaxing its one-child policy given its social dislocations.

But India, as the world’s largest democracy and substantially English-speaking, can be viewed as on the periphery of the Anglosphere, and China seems predisposed towards internalizing its power, as seen in its inability to play a major role in the tsunami relief effort.

What does all this mean? Your guess is as good as mine, but 1) I don’t subscribe to the overpopulation fears of the environmentalists, and 2) the Anglosphere is likely to continue to play a disproportionate role in shaping the world we live in. And that is a good thing.